By trade, Mike Morak is a sports marketer. The Mount Airy native spends his professional hours promoting his company’s basketball products to teams and programs around the country, sometimes traveling from one corner of the U.S. to another and back.
But here he was, shortly before midnight last Monday evening, perched yet hunched atop a random stairwell in La Salle’s Tom Gola Arena, both emotionally and physically drained, with beads of sweat slowly dripping from his brow onto the rubber covering the steps below.
And he didn’t even play in the night’s main event that finished an hour or so before in front of a raucous, jam-packed crowd in Olney that included the likes of Sixers prodigy Joel Embiid, head coach Brett Brown and even Pro Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Allen Iverson.
“A lot of people don’t think I run this,” Morak said while peering out toward La Salle’s darkened campus through the long window below, enjoying one of the first chances all day he had to sit down. “They don’t know who does this. I like to try and sit in the background and have some fun, but, as you see, that’s not always as easy as it sounds.”
Morak doubles as the director of events for the Danny Rumph Foundation, which honors its namesake, a former Philly high school (Parkway High) and Western Kentucky University star. On Mother's Day in 2005, Rumph tragically died from a heart condition that led to sudden cardiac arrest during a summer pick-up game at Mallery Recreation Center in Mount Airy. He was just 21 years old.
Morak was a close personal friend of Rumph’s from when they spent their days as young teenagers playing in leagues and in pick-up games at Mallery.
“Danny was always the coolest guy,” Morak said. “I remember he had some cool Polo socks on all the time. So he was always one of the best dressed kids.
“Every day after high school, we used to go to the gym and work out together and play on a bunch of rec teams and some tournament teams together. There was a group of us who used to play at Mallery playground all the time. We liked to call ourselves the Mallery Boys — just a group of kids who are still really good friends to this day. All from the same Mount Airy/Germantown neighborhood.”
Morak is also the brainchild behind the Danny Rumph Classic, an annual Philadelphia summer basketball tournament that has grown from its infancy in 2005 at Mallery — which was later renamed Rumph Playground in remembrance — all the way to a jam-packed arena at La Salle 11 years later. Now, NBA players like Marcus Morris (Pistons) and twin brother Markieff (Wizards) take part and even Houston Rockets superstar James Harden made a cameo appearance to play in Monday’s championship game for Team FOE, which stands for Family Over Everything.
“When Danny passed away, his mother Candy and his uncle Marcus Owens put the board together for the Danny Rumph Foundation,” explained Steven Holt, the foundation’s director of data services and longtime board member. “They reached out to Mike, he came on and the tournament began.”
“After Marcus asked me to join, one of the things I realized I could do was put together a basketball event that would honor [Rumph’s] name and bring his friends and community together,” Morak said.
So Morak used his marketing background to his advantage to get the charity tournament off the ground. The first year was a success, and the event continued to grow from one year to the next. Morak realized his creation was growing quicker than he ever expected and Mallery, notwithstanding its emotional ties, just couldn’t play host anymore.
“One day during the tournament years ago, we looked out and there was no three-point line on the sides because the crowds that showed up were so large and taking up so much space,” he said.
“There were eight NBA players playing by that time. We realized we probably needed to find a bigger venue. We had a connection at Arcadia University, so we played there for a few years. We had a stint at CCP (Community College of Philadelphia). But 11 years after we started, here we are at La Salle, a major college gym in Philly.”
This year marked the first time the tournament was held at Tom Gola Arena.
The heart of the cause
Rumph’s cause of death was later attributed to a condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), which caused the young basketball star to fall into sudden cardiac arrest.
“Essentially, [HCM] is often confused with 'athlete’s heart,'” explained Shawn Cameron, the head athletic trainer for Temple’s men’s basketball program.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, athlete’s heart is a non-fatal enlarging of the heart. But Cameron explained how HCM is much scarier and potentially fatal for an athlete.
“What happens with HCM is the heart has a hard time pumping blood, and the trickiest thing is that it often goes undiagnosed. ... Most people with the condition typically won’t have any symptoms and shouldn’t experience any significant problems.
“However, when you subject an athlete to an athletic, rigorous activity, they can all of a sudden develop shortness of breath, chest pain and abnormal heart rhythms. What all this can do is exacerbate the underlying condition, which is HCM.”
While you may not be familiar with the clinical term of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or even its more common initials, you’ve heard of it before if you can recall the shocking death of Philadelphia native and Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers, who died at 22 during an NCAA basketball game in 1990. Gathers’ death was later attributed to HCM.
The death of Celtics player Reggie Lewis, 26, in 1993 was another tragic ending attributed to HCM. Former Cardinal Dougherty High School and NBA star Cuttino Mobley abruptly retired in December 2008 when a physical after a trade from the Clippers to the Knicks showed signs of HCM.
But the risks of HCM are not limited to just basketball players.
San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Thomas Herrion, 23, collapsed and died in the locker room shortly after a preseason game in Denver in 2005. His heart was later found to have HCM. The 2009 death of Gaines Adams, a star defensive lineman at Clemson and No. 4 overall pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2007, was attributed to HCM. He was 26.
New York Rangers 2007 first-round pick Alexi Cherepanov, 19, collapsed and died on the bench during a KHL game in Russia in 2008. His death was also later attributed to HCM. A 2005 game between the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings was halted when Red Wings defenseman Jiri Fischer collapsed on the bench. After Fischer survived the scary episode, he was diagnosed with HCM. Fischer, who was 25 at the time of the incident, never played another NHL game, or professional game, for that matter. He now serves as the Red Wings’ director of player development.
But those are just a few of the more notable examples.
"I’d say there’s probably fewer than 150,000 to 200,000 cases per year and one in 500 people in the U.S. probably have it undiagnosed," Cameron said. "I think the higher incidence is just more prone between 19 to maybe 35, 40 years old."
He also added the condition can be inherited and is known to be more common in African Americans.
"The first thing to look for is shortness of breath," Cameron said. "You have to think why they would have shortness of breath and the obvious answer is they’re just out of shape. I can tell you that with Division I men’s basketball now, for example, it’s very rare when an athlete is out of shape just because how constant the preseason, in-season, postseason, summer schedule is. They’re physically taxing their bodies constantly. Another red flag is chest pain. Another sign would be during a checkup if an arrhythmia pops up. Those are the three cardinal signs.
“What’s big nowadays is that the undiagnosed information in these athletes needs to be discovered.”
And that’s the overall goal of the Rumph Foundation and the Danny Rumph Classic tournament.
The foundation helps young athletes get access to heart screenings, buys defibrillators to put in local rec centers and gyms and provides CPR trainings aimed at the younger population.
“Every rec center in the city now has a defibrillator,” Holt proudly said. “That’s a project we’re all done with, actually. Now we’re working with big CPR programs targeted for younger people. We have a large training session coming up in a couple weeks.”
For the community, by the community
How much this year’s tournament raised remains to be seen, but with as packed as Tom Gola Arena was on Monday night, it’s sure to be a nice amount. And what’s even more impressive about that is the fact Morak and his team prefer to not do too much promotion for the event.
They do some work on social media but are proud of the fact that word-of-mouth, community efforts are the driving forces behind getting people in the seats. For example, word of Harden’s Monday cameo appearance didn’t get out until a few hours before tip-off when a picture of Harden warming up at La Salle earlier in the afternoon made its way around Instagram.
“I never tell anyone [who’s going to be here],” Morak explained. “I’ve done enough events that I don’t like to disappoint anybody. I never released anything probably until today about James. And that was just because he made it known he was here. Too many people try to get people to come to an event based off of who may play. We like people to come knowing they’re going to see high-quality basketball. You never know who’s going to show up. I think that’s part of the whole fun of this.
“It’s all totally grassroots and organic. It’s hard to describe what kind of organization and event it is because I think it’s a lot different than anything else. It’s just something that’s really homegrown. And without the fans supporting us and the players supporting us, the event wouldn’t be anything. I’m really humble about the success of the event because I understand the event is nothing without the players that want to take time out of their day to play and the fans that want to come and physically enjoy it. Without all those aspects, we couldn’t be successful.”
As for the tournament itself, Team FOE, which featured Harden, the Morris twins, Maalik Wayns (Villanova), Dionte Christmas (Temple), Tyshawn Taylor (Kansas) and Markus Kennedy (SMU) topped CANCER WHO?, 120-108, to take home its third title in the last four years.
Players on CANCER WHO? included Jason Thompson (Rider), Malik Alvin (Binghamton), Semaj Inge (Temple), Dustin Salisbery (Temple) and Anthony Harris (Miami, Fla.)
The play of the night on Monday came when Harden, who played the villain role to a crowd that embraced its homegrown Philadelphia talent, threw down a ferocious one-handed slam off an alley-oop during the game’s waning minutes.
Taylor took home the tournament’s MVP award.
What does the future hold?
Morak, who credited the Morris twins (Prep Charter High grads before they went to Kansas and then on to the NBA) for helping facilitate Harden's arrivial and supporting the tournament and Philadelphia basketball as a whole, had no clue his creation would get this big.
“It was definitely a goal to get to 11 years,” he said. “Eleven, funny enough, is Danny’s jersey number, so I wanted to get it past a decade. But it’s like who knows how far we’ll go with it?”
After this year’s turnout and success, board members know they’ve got work to do to raise the bar next year.
“That’s what we were just saying now — we don’t know," Holt said of what happens next with the tournament. “I guess when we get together for our board meeting, we’ll discuss venue. It just keeps getting bigger. But we like that we’re going to keep it in the community.
“Mike does a great job putting everything together with whatever his connections are and getting more and more guys to play. Again, it just gets bigger and bigger.”
Morak himself is one of tempered expectations. He admitted he doesn’t get too high on the success of his creation.
The main reason for that is because once one year’s tournament ends, the work on the next year’s begins almost immediately. And the workload piles higher and higher as the tournament continues to grow.
But it’s a challenge he accepts with open arms.
“Hopefully, next year, we’re able to replicate this success from tonight," he said after the tournament final. “It’s always hard to top one of the best scorers in the NBA playing. A lot of other guys who have wanted to play have reached out about playing and participating, so we just have to see where the chips may fall. I don’t like to put a level on it because I don’t want to be disappointed in what it may be. But I think if we can take tonight’s energy and move it into next year, I’ll be happy.
“We had Ben Simmons in the crowd over the weekend and A.I. tonight. Maybe one day we can get Kobe to walk in the door.”
Stars, crowds, accolades, you name it and the Rumph Classic has it these days. That thrills Morak, but just because an NBA superstar shows up or a famous person is in the stands or something trends on social media doesn’t change the purpose of the event.
The purpose will continue to be the same since that tragic Mother's Day 11 years ago, when the life of his close friend ended too soon.
"We have to save these bright, young stars," he said, "and make a difference in the community."